Head of House Office of Diversity and Inclusion urges more staff diversity

U.S. Capitol
Greg Nash

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Thursday held a hearing on increasing calls for congressional staffers to be more representative of the country’s population.

“Our constituents are better served by staff who reflect the diversity in our districts and our country,” committee chair Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said in his opening statement. 

“Members are better served by staff who bring a diversity of perspectives to the policymaking process. We do our jobs better when we’re willing to acknowledge what we don’t know and willing to listen and learn from people whose experiences are different from our own,” he said.

Kilmer and the other House members on the committee heard from Kemba Hendrix, head of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as well as former Hill staffers of color.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have become more diverse in recent years. This session of Congress is the most diverse yet, breaking the record that was set by the previous Congress.

According to Pew Research Center, at the start of the session in January there were 124 members of Congress who identified as either Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander or Native American.

Still, Congress as a whole is mostly homogenous — nearly 80 percent of lawmakers in the legislative body are white. The same pattern can also be found in members’ staffs.

An August study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that looked at top Senate staffers — chief of staff, legislative director and communications director — revealed only 11 percent of people in those positions were people of color, albeit an increase from 7 percent in 2015.

Both chambers of Congress have attempted to foster more diversity among staffers, though currently the House has a more robust system in place.

The House in 2019 created its Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which Hendrix heads. That year, the new office released a compensation and diversity study that showed almost 70 percent of House employees were white. 

Senate Democrats have been releasing a yearly staff racial diversity report since 2017 and have implemented a rule similar to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule;” Democratic offices must interview at least one person of color for every job opening.

However, the Senate doesn’t have its own office dedicated to diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Hendrix also told the committee that the House has a problem when it comes to having diverse top staffers.

“It can’t just start at the bottom, thinking that an internship pipeline is going to increase the level of [diverse] senior leaders who are going to be able to affect policy decisions and affect being able to grow and develop future leaders,” Hendrix told the House panel.

In her written testimony, Hendrix gave insight from the office’s 2020 diversity and equity analysis.

“Staffers from various demographic groups feel ‘overlooked’ in consideration for leadership roles and/or promotion,” Hendrix wrote. “Many House employees feel the only way to get a promotion is to leave one’s current office or the Hill, which makes it increasingly difficult to build a sustainable pipeline for leaders of color, or from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Following the recent election cycle, the Tri-Caucus Staff Associations — organizations that offer professional support for Black, Hispanic and Asian American staffers — sent a letter to House and Senate leadership urging for greater staff diversity in this session of Congress.

Tags congressional diversity Derek Kilmer diversity and inclusion House staffers Kemba Hendrix Senate staffers

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